29 January, 2016


With a reading week at uni and some holiday hours to take off work, myself and a couple of friends decided to book a four-day holiday to Malta.

Malta has never been top of my list of places to visit - mainly because, like many birders, I've been off-putted by the bird hunting atrocities that appear in the news every spring, but I was pretty easily swayed by the promise of sun, sea and good beer, and we set off on Thursday last week.

The first two days were spent visiting various historical towns and cities around the island, admiring the beautiful architecture and eclectic culture. The island has clearly been influenced by the colonies that have landed on its shores (evident by the fact that almost all locals are fluent in English and every other bar is an Irish Pub), but it maintains a really unique sense of individuality and tradition that no amount of British tourism could break.

We spent the last two days exploring the more remote west coast of the island, characterised by high cliffs, scree slopes, megalithic temples and 360 degree views. Blue Rock Thrush flitted between the boulders, whilst Sardinian and Cetti's Warblers sung from the dry scrub. One of my friends is current undertaking a horticulture internship back at home, so we spent a fair amount of time getting our heads around the local cliff top flora. Maltese Spurge - a species endemic to the archipeligo - decorated much of the upper slopes, interspersed with clumps of the tiny Mediterranean Heather and delicate Bunch-flowered Daffodil.

Mediterranean Heather (Erica multiflora)

Maltese Spurge (Euphorbia melitensis)

Bunch-flowered Daffodil (Narcissus tazetta)

Further north we stopped off at Ghajn Tuffieha, a collection of steep-sided turquoise bays composed entirely of sandstone. Sublime...

Cape Sorrel (Oxalis pes-caprae)

And all that done using only the island's well established network of buses - leagues ahead of public transport in London.

14 January, 2016

Binocular psychology

It's been a slow start to the year in terms of wildlife opportunities. A combination of coursework deadlines, job commitments and the grogginess of the weather here in Worcester have kept me inside for a large proportion of the past two weeks.

Last week I did go and treat myself to a new pair of binoculars from The Birder's Store in Worcester town centre. Brian was as helpful as ever and I ended up leaving with a brand spanking new pair of Opticron's Discovery 10x42. My technical know-how when it comes to optics is non-existent (I couldn't for the life of me tell you what the '42' in '10x42' means) so I won't even attempt to review them, but these look and feel fantastic for the modest price tag, and the compact design is perfect for the 'sling-over-your-shoulder' way I want to use them.

I never really got on much with binoculars, this being only the second pair I've owned. Wearing them around your neck gives you away as a bit of an anorak - or so 16-year old me thought - and that wasn't the type of self-image I wanted to promote. In the same vein as other people growing up with a passion for natural history, it felt as though no one in my school shared my interests, and I was afraid I might be seen as uncool if people caught wind of it. As a result, for most of secondary school, very few of my friends knew that I liked birds, and even fewer of them knew that I went birding around the local area on a daily basis - it was something I tried to keep secret; hiding away my binoculars whilst walking to my local park until I was sure there was no chance of bumping into someone I knew.

It hasn't been hard to notice a heartening change in young people's attitudes towards the hobby, as various platforms of social media (Twitter in particular) have helped link up like-minded people across the country. When I was school aged, only six or seven years ago, I'd come home and share my sightings to a tiny handful of other 'young' birders through the now dormant Young Birders blog. Fast forward to 2016 and the Next Generation Birders crowd now has almost 650 Facebook members and 4,000 Twitter followers; regularly organising field trips and socials for members. Every other post on my Twitter news feed seems to celebrate the actions of teenagers promoting wildlife within their school or wider community, and it's welcoming to see that they don't identify a passion for wildlife as something to be reserved about in the way that I did. It's fair to say that birding has never been so popular amongst youngsters.

On an unrelated note, I've noticed several other bloggers subtly drop-in links to songs at the end of their posts, and it works well - so much so that I might start adding more music to this blog in 2016. This week's artist was inevitable.

31 December, 2015

Happy New Year

Wishing you all a fantastic new year from both myself and this Tortricodes alternella that turned up at a lit kitchen window last night.

Be sure to make 2016 the year you express yourself.


30 December, 2015

A trivial quest

It's late June. The height of summer. Flowers are appearing everywhere and the weather has been kind to us on the west coast of Mull for the past week. There are 20 hours of daylight in a 24 hour period, and it seemed like the ideal time to find my way seventy odd miles to the other side of the island in search of one of the rarest moths in Britain; the Slender Scotch Burnet.

Chimney Sweeper

Small Pearl-bordered Fritillary

Starting at the croft late in the morning, I walked for a feet-busting 16 miles along the A849 - the main road connecting each corner of the island - spurred on every few metres by the appearance of Small Pearl-bordered Fritillary, Chimney Sweeper and Marsh Fritillary feeding amongst the abundant roadside vegetation.

Clouds over Ben More

I reached Tobermory late in the evening, having hitch-hiked half way across Mull with a young couple driving their camper van back to Yorkshire - they'd spent the last few days at a music festival on Iona. I checked into the youth hostel, stumbled towards the harbour for fish & chips (and a drop of the town's esteemed whisky), and devoured it all on a golf course while watching dusk fall over the island.

Looking south from Tobermory golf course - mainland Scotland is on the left and Ben More (Mull's highest mountain) can be seen peeking over the headland on the right.

The next morning I was up and out by first light; the destination a sheltered patch of coastal grassland tucked away behind a small private castle called Glengorm, where Slender Scotch Burnet has one of its only strongholds in the UK.

The castle itself stands alone in a remote & windswept landscape, well away from the nearest crofts. Getting to it requires a six mile drive along a thin, curvy road - up and down steep hills, through lush grassland pastures and alongside thick pine forests. Without a car it was a tiring four hour stroll, but one of the most tranquil I've ever experienced. I was 70 odd miles from the croft I was working on and hundreds more away from home, relying only on my limited ability to hitchhike to get back for the night. I was in the middle of nowhere and no one was expecting me anywhere. There were no deadlines to fulfil. It's hard to explain but I felt completely disconnected from any obligations other than my trivial quest to see a rare moth, and it felt really nice.

By 10am the wind had subsided and the sun - already high in the sky - was parching the coastal grassland behind the castle. Conditions were perfect and the shoreline resembled classic Zygaena habitat; short grassy turf intertwined with numerous Bird's-foot Trefoil and the strong, aromatic smell of flowering Thyme. It didn't take long to find a Slender Scotch Burnet resting on a grass stem, followed by another, and another. They were easier to identify than I'd initially imagined; noticeably smaller than the Six-spot Burnets also present and almost always with the two spots closest to the end of the wing fused together. I stuck around for a couple of hours - watching a White-tailed Eagle soar on thermals overhead and a small pod of Bottlenose Dolphins out at sea - before starting on the long journey back to the croft.

Slender Scotch Burnet

Pyrausta cingulata

This post is part of a wholly inconsistent, seldom updated series on my time spent working on organic farms in the Hebrides this summer. You can find the previous posts here:

28 December, 2015

Migrant of the Year

One of the highlights of this year has been the influx of migrant moths into much of the UK. The likes of Dark Sword-grass, Small Mottled Willow and, just recently, Syncopacma polychromella have all reached the garden from their continental breeding grounds for the first time. However, the prestigious Bill's Birding Migrant of the Year award has to go to the Bordered Straw which went from no garden records to six in the space of a few months.

The above two moths represent the 1st and 3rd records for the garden (the 2nd didn't stick around for a photo), and turned up towards the end of May at the same time as a wave of Striped Hawk-moths and Bordered Straws hit the south coast. All three had sustained varying degrees of wear and tear on their travels from southern Europe, and were easy to distinguish as individuals because they each had separate little chunks missing from their forewings.

August came, and with it a second wave of Bordered Straws. Whilst the May individuals had been pale and sparsely marked - characteristics associated with moths of desert origin - these new moths were noticeably darker in colouration and turned up without any signs of travel-induced damage to their forewing, indicating that they'd emerged locally - the home bred second generation from eggs laid by the pale individuals back in May.

The question of whether an individual is a 'true' migrant or the home-grown offspring of an egg laying migrant is a hard one to answer. As recorders we all like to hope that our moths have made the impressive crossing from across the channel, and luckily Bordered Straws are one of those species that give us some clues as to their origin through their forewing patterns! 

27 December, 2015

Christmas presents

Syncopacma polychromella - a minuscule long-distance traveller 

If you put a moth trap out in our garden in any month outside the period April-September, you're asking to be let down. The bright glow of overlooking street lights draws away the few moths likely to be flying, and even trapping in mild weather is unlikely to catch the most abundant of the late-flying species; Winter Moth itself has appeared in the garden on only two occasions in the past seven years!

This winter looks set to be different. Winds pushed straight up from sub-saharan Africa have blown with them warm temperatures and plenty of migrant moths, so I put the trap out in the garden on Christmas night on the off chance that Father Mothmas had a present or two in-store.

Morning came and presents there were. One each of Syncopacma polychromella & Crocidosema plebejana were tucked away amongst the egg boxes at the bottom of the trap. The Crocidosema is a late-flying species of tortrix only added to the Surrey moth list as recently as 1996 when one was caught in Chessington by ex-county recorder Jim Porter. The Syncopacma is just one of many to have been blown over from the continent recently, with over 40 individuals having turned up along the south coast in the past couple of weeks. This is quite an impressive turn-up considering that the 6th record of the species for Britain was only just caught in July by Steve Nash.

Both of these were unsurprisingly new to the garden, and another moth session in the garden last night produced this Oak Beauty - a whole two months earlier than my previous earliest record! Looks like it could be a very interesting winter...

Oak Beauty - normally a spring flying species, but enticed into early emergence by the warm weather.

29 November, 2015

Rearing leafmines

Rearing leafmines is a great way to get up close with many elusive species of moth that are otherwise hard find and photograph as adults. Some leafminers are very low maintenance once taken into captivity whilst others can require a bit more care and attention in order to successfully breed through.

Phyllonorycter blancadella leafmine on Wild Service

Phyllonorycter blancardella larva feeding within the same mine

Over the autumn I collected a handful of Phyllonorycter leafmines containing larvae to attempt to rear into adult moths. Phyllonorycters feed, pupate and emerge from the small mines they create, making them an easy genus to rear. I simply place the leaf containing the leafmine into a sealed pot, label the species and/or plant it was found on and set it aside in a cool, dark place. Ideally most will emerge next spring, but there is always the chance of early emergences in warmer indoor temperatures.

Signed, sealed... 

Whether or not the end result will be a fully formed adult moth is another matter altogether. Many caterpillars will have been parasitised by another insect of some kind during their lifetime, and it's just a likely that a parasitic wasp will emerge from the leafmine.

This tiny wasp emerged from a Phyllonorycter coryli leafmine a couple of days ago - it would have hatched in the mine alongside the caterpillar, fed on it and eventually pupated in its own cocoon.

A parasitic wasp (possibly genus Pediobius) reared from a Phyllonorycter coryli leafmine

05 November, 2015

Throwback Thursday

Delving through some of my old notebooks the other day, I found this one from 2007. Well thumbed and completely filled from the first to last page with records, this was 12 year old me's first attempt at keeping a log of all the birds I could identify - everywhere I went.

I'd get up at half six every morning before school and note all the species that visited the garden, using an extremely sophisticated picture key to indicate where I saw them. Every so often I'd come across something really exciting that I'd never see before - like the above Willow Warbler & Meadow Pipit spotted whilst visiting family in Yorkshire - and they'd get a special 'F' written next to them (the term 'lifer' was still unbeknown to me at this point), as well as a glued-in picture nicked from Google images!

For me, as with pan-species listing, the act of keeping a casual field notebook unintentionally became a chore over time. The very point of a 'field' notebook is that you use it in the field, get it dirty and don't worry about how it looks, yet I'd find myself thinking way too deeply into how I structured it and would become dissatisfied with how the pages looked compared to other birders' notebooks. I'd typically get a quarter of the way through a notebook and then abandon it when a backlog started to form. Blogger and Twitter became an easy way to record a day's worth of wildlife.

For someone who likes to get a bit nostalgic every now and again, notebooks are a great way to re-surface past events. You can flick through months and years worth of sightings and field trips without the need to load up an app. It's just a shame I never got the hang of writing one!

02 November, 2015

Lists, and my fragile relationship with them

I've had a love hate relationship with pan-species listing since I started doing it in late 2012. When I have a lot of free time, I love it. During my gap year I'd spend a lot of time at Stokes Field, taking photos of every insect, plant or fungi I found and then staying up until stupid o'clock identifying them all. Over time I began to learn more about taxonomic groups I'd never usually look at, and I got a little buzz from the satisfying feeling that came with securing the identification of something particularly obscure and tricky.

On the other hand, when I don't have the time or enthusiasm to scratch my head over the front femurs of a Polydrusus weevil, a backlog starts to form that can be hard to keep on top of. I've been experiencing said pan-species lull for a while - not having entered a record since June 2014 according to the PSL website.

9 out of 37 pages worth of lists.

A bout of competitive curiosity last week had me wondering just how extensive my list had become since then. There wasn't an easy way to work it out - a lot of wildlife-related things have happened since June 2014, and I spent several long nights trawling through all my photos and notes from Skokholm, Mull, Eigg and the like; picking out every species I possibly could and adding them to the list.

I hit the 2000 species milestone on Wednesday night with Elachista albidella - a tiny micro moth found in a bog on Mull - and the common hoverfly Eupoedes luniger became number 2001 the next morning; six months after I photographed it in the garden on a sunny spring afternoon.

Elachista albidella

Eupoedes luniger

How long this spell of listing enthusiasm will last, I'm not sure. The PSL recorders' league table is fun, but it doesn't interest me as much as learning about the species itself. As soon as I find myself listing for the sake of climbing up the rankings, I'll know it's probably time to give it a break again.

24 October, 2015

Postcards from Erraid

I woke up early one morning back in June to the sound of absolutely nothing. The wind and rain had battered our corner of western Mull for most of the night, but with the morning came an extreme sense of silence and stillness. I spent a while in the garden repairing the netting from a fruit cage that had been damaged during the night, watched closely by an inquisitive flock of Twite that would inevitably find their way to the redcurrants, netting or no netting!

I checked the weather forecast - which on Mull means looking at how much cloud is on the horizon - whipped up a pack lunch, pumped some air into the bike tyres and left the croft for a day of exploring.

Cycling towards Fionnphort and taking a left turn just before reaching the village had me passing Fidden, a popular family campsite and the last real sign of habitation on the south west corner of the Ross of Mull. From here it was a three mile uphill cycle to the idyllic beach at Knockvologan; a sheltered cove with numerous small islands all connected at low tide by hundreds of metres of white sand. The comparison between Hebridean beaches and those of the Carribean may have become a bit of a cliche, but it seemed more than fitting here.

The small island of Erraid lies a few hundred metres out to sea from Knockvologan, isolated at high tide but connected by a long stretch of beach at low tide. By the time I'd arrived, the sea had only recently receded, and I was greeted by a huge expanse of fresh sand. Apart from the footprints of Eider ducks it was completely untouched, and I made my way across the beach excited by the possibility that I might have Erraid all to myself.

Erraid on the left, mainland on the right 

Sea Mouse-ear

I made landfall on a rocky shoreline and headed inland through eerie woods; each tree warped and twisted into unusual shapes by years of exposure to the elements. The air had once more gone completely silent, and only the seldom 'tick' 'tick' call of a distant Robin reassured me that I hadn't lost my hearing.

Looking back towards the mainland

The coastal woods were carpeted in unusual mosses, lichens and low-growing ferns

Cochylis nana

Actenicerus sjaelandicus

Warped oaks

Whilst only small in size, traversing Erraid's many hills and gullies makes it seem bigger than it actually is. I spent hours walking up and down the island, admiring a fantastic array of heathland flora and fauna before remembering that the island was tidal, and that I'd be stranded until morning if I didn't beat the tide! Not necessarily a bad thing - I'd have happily slept there all night amongst the heather - but I was expected at a local village ceilidh that evening. Hard life.

I headed back in the direction of home, stopping briefly to watch a distant Merlin hunt over the cliffs.

Hedya atropunctana

Epinotia bilunana

Satyr Pug

Golden-ringed Dragonfly

Late night sunset